A recent ad on Italian TV said, ‘If Italy was a house, Emilia-Romagna would be the kitchen.’ Many Italians from other regions might throw up their hands in horror and rightly say, ‘but we have an amazing cuisine too!’ However, this demonstrates the reputation that Emilia-Romagna—the capital of which is Bologna—has as the foodie region of Italy.
I might correct the ad to ‘If Italy was a house, Emilia-Romagna would be the larder …’ because with one or two exceptions the fame of Emilia-Romagna is not for dishes but for several ingredients and products now considered essential to Italian cuisine in general. This list would include: Aceto Balsamico di Modena (balsamic vinegar), Prosciutto di Parma (Parma ham), Mortadella, and the indispensable Parmigiano Reggiano (Parmesan cheese).
I recently spent a weekend in Bologna and decided to put together this guide to the city, focusing on its food but also history and art. If you’ve never been and are looking for an Italian city-break destination, I would highly recommend it.
Bologna la dotta … or rossa … or grassa?
Founded in the second century BC as Roman Bononia, Bologna has played an important part in Italian history every since. In the middle ages it became an important seat of learning and it’s university, traditionally founded in 1088, is considered to be the oldest in Europe. Shortly after the university’s founding, Bologna managed to establish itself as an independent city state, ruled over the years by several noble families most notably the Pepoli and Bentivoglio. Medieval Bologna had a reputation for freedom and equality, having abolished serfdom and slavery and also allowing women a higher status than in most European cities. At this point Bologna became a centre for art with many notable artists playing important roles in the Italian renaissance.
Bolognese independence finally came to an end in 1506 when Pope Julius II conquered it and added it to the Papal States. In 1796 it was conquered again, this time by Napoleon who ruled it for a brief period until it was returned to the Pope. This remained the status quo until 1860 when it joined the states which were eventually to become the Kingdom of Italy.
In 1943, Bologna was the target of several allied air raids which did a lot of damage to the centro storico. This was mostly due to the city’s importance as a centre of the Italian railway system (Bologna Centrale is currently the fifth busiest station in Italy). The train station was also the scene of a terrorist bombing in 1980. Carried out by a neo-fascist group, 85 people lost their lives and more than 200 were injured.
Sometimes called Bologna la rossa, (Bologna the red) because of its many red-brick buildings, the city is famous for its copious colonnades which protect people walking round it from the winter rain and summer sun. It’s also known as Bologna la dotta (Bologna the educated) because of the universtiy, and Bologna la grassa (Bologna the fat) for reasons you will discover below.
Today, Bologna is a vibrant university town of about 390,000 people, famous for liberal politics and lifestyle (many consider it the gay capital of Italy). Many young people visit it for its student nightlife and copious music festivals.
Bologna is famous for fresh egg pasta (pasta all’uovo) and the city is literally piled high with trays of fresh tortellini, little belly buttons of pasta stuffed with meat and parmigiano reggiano cheese.
Said to indeed have been modelled on the belly button of a beautiful noblewoman, or in some versions the goddess Venus herself, these are often served in rich cream sauce or in a meat broth. The latter, tortellini in brodo is considered an essential part of Christmas meals up and down the Italian peninsula.
Tortellini have always loomed large in my life and are my favourite type of pasta. My ‘nonna’, Zia Rita knew this and always prepared them as the my first meal on my annual returns to Italy.
People are often quite suprised to find that the internationally most famous dish from Bologna, spaghetti bolognaise, doesn’t actually exist. It’s a post war fabrication, created outside Italy to accommodate the fact that spaghetti (which is actually from Campania, not Emilia-Romagna) was the only widely available pasta in the UK and USA. Bolognaise sauce (ragù alla bolognese) does exist but is traditionally served with tagliatelle, long flat strands of egg pasta. It’s made from beef mince and pancetta with several other key ingredients including white wine and, according to the official recipe lodged at the Italian Culinary Academy, even milk and cream. The sauce is generally a lot drier than the international version, a change which was made to make it easier to eat with spaghetti. (It’s worth noting that spaghetti is made without eggs and so has a completely different taste as well as an inability to hold the sauce.)
Bologna’s streetfood, like most of Emilia-Romagna, consists of piadine flat bread made with lard and stuffed with cheese or cold meat. The dough from this is often deep fried to form crescentine which are eaten with cold meats and squacquerone cheese (difficult to pronounce but easy to eat!) The crescentine are rather like Tuscan donzelle but softer because of the lard which also makes them even more tasty. I told you they called the city Bologna la grassa!
As I said in the introduction Emilia-Romagna is famous for several basic products used in Italian cuisine and these are on display all over the city. The whole city sometimes feels like one big Italian deli, which means for a foodie like me, paradise.
Although most of these products come from nearby Parma or Modena rather than Bologna, one, Mortadella, is from the city itself. It’s a huge pink sausage with white spots inside when cut, and is often known as Bologna sausage. This has given its name to an American variant known as baloney.
When I was there last week there was an exhibition of local arts and crafts including how to make Parmigiano Reggiano in the traditional manner using a huge copper vat.
So, I’ll leave you with some more mouth-watering pictures of local products. As I said, if you are in the need of a mini break, Bologna is a great place to start.
Have you ever been to Bologna? What did you eat?